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In this edition: Fallout at NBC from Ronna McDaniel’s new gig, Andrew Neil takes a victory lap, and ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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March 25, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’ve learned not to guess who’s going to win the presidential election.

Everybody else is guessing, though, and the overwhelming belief right now among leaders of corporate America is that Donald Trump will be president again. Wall Street and Silicon Valley elites are “warming up to Trump,” Bloomberg’s Brad Stone writes. After all, he’ll anger their progressive enemies, while “cozying up to the potential next president and protecting their economic interests is probably also just a really smart hedge.”

You can interpret a lot of what’s happening in politics and media now as a product of the Trump-wins conventional wisdom. The U.S.’s European allies are preparing to stand alone. Everyone is bracing for tariffs. Republicans who oppose Trump are quitting their jobs.

And in the parts of American media owned by giant conglomerates with reason to fear what lawyers call “exposure,” they’re trying to stay off the enemies list.

That’s the theme of Max’s story today about NBC, but when you start looking around, you’ll see it everywhere.

Also today: Telegram beats X, Donald McNeil reflects on being misled by scientists, Andrew Neil takes a victory lap, Ari Melber thrives on YouTube, Hadas Gold is back, our colleague Alexis Akwagyiram is talking to Idris Elba, and Sinclair is just asking questions. (Scoop count: 7)

Semafor has opened registration for the 2024 World Economy Summit – our most ambitious venture in live journalism yet, and the only major media event to be held against the background of the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C. on April 17-18. The speaker lineup is an incredible roster of top U.S. and global economic, business, and political figures, and we hope you’ll check it out.

Assignment Desk

Worse than Russian state media: When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, much of Twitter — then the default English-language breaking news platform — was taken up with people translating or reposting videos from the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which serves as a central news platform in Russia and elsewhere. But when apparent Islamic State terrorists attacked a concert in Moscow last week, Twitter (now X) was full of claims that were crazier and worse-sourced than what you’d see on Telegram.

One Elon Musk favorite announced that Putin had directly blamed Ukraine for the attack (which he hadn’t), while another claimed it was “increasingly likely” that Ukraine had plotted it. Over on Telegram — whose premium app offers automatic translation — even Russian state-controlled media like Interfax, and permitted ones like Mash, were more reliable than those verified X accounts. Independent Russian outlets’ channels, like those of Meduza, TVRain, Novaya Gazeta, and The Insider, meanwhile, were indispensable.

Max Tani

Led by NBC, U.S. corporate media is learning to live with Trump

Ronna McDaniel ahead of the second GOP primary debate in September 2023.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images


For weeks before NBC News journalists exploded into open revolt Sunday over the network’s hire of a top Donald Trump supporter, the media company that controls three of the top U.S. news networks had been quietly rebuilding its ties to the former president.

Network insiders noticed on March 5, when, during MSNBC’s Super Tuesday broadcast of Trump’s primary wins, host Rachel Maddow indicated to producers off-camera that viewers had heard enough from the former president. MSNBC president Rashida Jones told production staff that she wanted to stay with his speech. Maddow mused live about the challenges of taking Trump’s comments on the fly and “allowing somebody to knowingly lie on your air.”

Six days later, CNBC welcomed the former president back to Squawk Box for a phone-in interview primarily conducted by right-leaning host Joe Kernen.

And while those decisions were handled cordially inside the network, tensions flared when NBC News told the New York Times on Friday that it had hired former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel as an on-air commentator. The move was the culmination of a few weeks of discussions spearheaded by NBC News senior political vice president and its editorial president Rebecca Blumenstein, with signoff from MSNBC and CNBC leadership and NBCUniversal chief Cesar Conde, according to a company official.

The hiring was despite McDaniel’s previous public criticism of MSNBC and NBC News’ coverage of Trump and Republican politics. Her team at the RNC refused to let MSNBC simulcast the 2024 GOP primary debate hosted on NBC News.

“Our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation,” former Meet The Press host Chuck Todd said to his successor, Kristen Welker, of the McDaniel drama during Sunday’s broadcast.

The rings of leadership involved in approving McDaniel is an indication that they knew hiring her would be a controversial move that the network would have to defend. Liberal viewers have created memes mocking the decision, and media critics said the network was further whitewashing McDaniel’s role in the events that culminated in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

McDaniel, for her part, quietly deleted tweets criticizing NBC and acknowledged on Meet the Press that the 2020 election was legitimate.

“Joe Biden won. He’s the president,” she said. “He’s the legitimate president.” And yet, she added: “I have always said and I continue to say there were issues in 2020.”

Read on for Max's analysis of the political and economic factors that could push media to make amends with Trump. →

One Good Text

Andrew Neil, a British broadcaster and chairman of The Spectator, played a central role in blocking Jeff Zucker’s attempt to purchase The Telegraph on behalf of an Abu Dhabi-backed media group.


⁛ News

Misled McNeil: Nobody, but nobody, wants to even think about, much less cover, the chaos of the early COVID period. But to revisit that horrorshow: An extraordinary set of Slack messages was accidentally released by a congressional committee last summer. They reveal top evolutionary virologists telling one another that they find the “lab leak” theory of the coronavirus’s genesis plausible, but that, for reasons of politics — they didn’t want to give ammunition to people they saw as alarmist about some virus research — they should steer journalists away from it. The messages also include specific discussion about how to manage then-New York Times public health reporter Donald McNeil.

McNeil, with those scientists’ encouragement, became an early skeptic of the lab leak theory, before concluding it was in fact a possible explanation of COVID’s origin. He addresses the Slacks in his new book, The Wisdom of Plagues, writing that the scientists “clearly misled me early on.” McNeil is “disappointed, both in them and in myself, that I was so easily taken in.”

But he muses on the challenge: “It’s one thing to be lied to by a politician and fail to check it out. But on viral evolution, to whom do you go for a second opinion? … If Albert Einstein assured you that nuclear fission is harmless, whom would you trust to quote saying, ‘Einstein’s dead wrong?’”

Now the substantive debate is a “stalemate,” he writes, with both sides “hurling mud,” and editors demanding answers “so they can assign analyses of which political candidates benefit.” (Correction: An earlier version of this item misidentified the scientific field of the evolutionary virologists.)

Melber’s numbers: MSNBC has quietly reached enormous numbers on YouTube, in no small part due to the reach of The Beat with Ari Melber, which has also built a strong audience in the often-cursed 6 p.m. slot. On YouTube, The Beat just crossed 1.5 billion views, and averages more than 500,000 views a clip — good engagement by any measure of YouTube success. His hits include normal MSNBC fodder like anti-Putin and anti-Trump reporting, for instance, as well as interviews with artists including 50 Cent and Erykah Badu. (Melber sometimes mixes the two threads, once asking a former Russian foreign minister, “Was it not Bakunin who said, ‘Don’t get high on your own supply’?”)

YouTube remains an afterthought for U.S. cable and broadcast networks because the revenue there is still dwarfed by what comes in from affiliate fees and TV advertising. But as viewers continue to drift away from cable, and as YouTube consolidates its hold on longform news video, there’s a larger question about whether, and when, the draw of the creator economy will start pulling big names out of TV altogether. The audience, as Piers Morgan noted recently when he stopped broadcasting on the doomed British TalkTV, is there. What remains to be seen is whether TV networks — with their juggernaut ad sales machines, in particular — will be able to keep top talent from going independent, or whether breakout figures like Megyn Kelly, who’ve built their own business on YouTube, are the wave of the future.

Melber, for his part, says he won’t rest on his laurels.

“We’re definitely thrilled to find a loyal audience on both TV and YouTube who values our reporting, culture pieces and in-depth interviews,” Melber said in an email. “But rapper Lil Baby did tell me he doesn’t even display platinum plaques, because they limit you to past hits when there’s work left to do.”

Welcome back: The veteran media reporter Hadas Gold, who has most recently been on assignment covering the Gaza war from Jerusalem for CNN, is back to covering the glorious media beat as a correspondent, a CNN spokesperson told Semafor exclusively. “Hadas will be working with Jon Passantino, Oliver Darcy and Liam Reilly on CNN’s Media team,” they said of the announcement, planned for Monday.

Long road for NewsNation: The would-be fourth big cable news channel, launched amid the collapse of linear television, is barely registering with viewers. To wit: They’ve launched a Sunday political talk show, a la Meet the Press, hosted by ousted Fox hand Chris Stirewalt. Last Sunday, Stirewalt tweeted that due to a technical “hiccup,” the show would not air. Did you notice?

Just asking questions: Local television powerhouse Sinclair Broadcasting Group is running a survey suggesting that there are proposals to allow immigrants living in the country illegally to vote. A tipster pointed Semafor to one of Sinclair’s television stations in Rhode Island, WJAR, which is currently running a bizarre 30-day viewer “poll” on their website, asking: “Do you believe illegal immigrants should vote in US elections?”

Energy bars: Energy reporters covering CERAWeek in Houston saw the ExxonMobil and Chevron bicker over Guyana and do their best to charm the press the old-fashioned way. Journalists who made their way past protesters found a Chevron party in the dark upstairs room of a music venue, with plentiful snacks and an open bar of wine and beer. One reporter who emailed us said he thought Exxon won the week Wednesday with free hard liquor and branded beer koozies.

On ‘proper’ newsgathering: The All-China Journalists Association is complaining publicly about reporters being manhandled at the scene of an explosion, a point of view amplified by an — exceedingly careful and polite — editorial in the South China Morning Post, which concludes: “We trust mainland China authorities will recognise the legitimate rights of all journalists covering news on the mainland, including those from Hong Kong, as long as they are conducting proper news gathering in a professional way.”

⁜ Tech

Clout economics: The indispensable Garbage Day spots a new trend of adult performers making family-friendly(-ish) content for TikTok and other major social platforms while involving random strangers in their pranks. Underlying it is a pervasive view that attention is equivalent to value. When the subject of one “skit” involving sexual harassment at a Target objects to his inclusion in a video, the content creator responds: “He got five million views. He is pissed about nothing. STFU take the free clout and get you some $$$.”

✦ Marketing

Pricey rental: MediaLink is charging companies $850,000 for a prime meeting space on the beach at Cannes, Adweek scoops. No word on whether co-founder Michael Kassan’s departure will produce discounts. Meanwhile, The Ankler has the latest on the legal mudslinging between Kassan and UTA, revealing that the former MediaLink head was granted a pandemic relief loan in 2020 for over $40,000, despite his having sold his company for $69 million in cash just a few years earlier.

☊ Audio

Looking back: Andy Mills thought the Canadian media show Canadaland was unfair to him when he became the Times’s scapegoat for some mixture of workplace politics and the Caliphate mess. So when Canadaland host Jesse Brown himself became the subject of (Gaza-related) online controversy, Mills emailed him. Their conversation is an unusual debate about what journalists do.

Podcast digression of the week: Andrew Sullivan’s dog got into his weed and had a vivid dream.

Good timing for us! Ezra Klein says it’s a “great time to start a media organization” amid a thoughtful discussion of this media moment with PJ Vogt on Search Engine.

⁋ Publishing

What the Telegraph is worth: The worse the media business gets, the larger share of a publisher’s value is its political power, Michael Wolff notes in his astute essay on Jeff Zucker’s Telegraph debacle: “Zucker wasn’t just trying to buy British media properties — he was, though he might not have been entirely aware of the breadth of his grab, trying to buy part of the country’s political system.”

✰ Hollywood

Chapek speaks: The former Disney CEO makes a surprise reappearance in CNBC reporter Alex Sherman’s smart and watchable documentary about the future of ESPN.

Trust in Zaz: Puck’s Bill Cohan tries his hand at shifting the conventional wisdom that Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav is in huge trouble. What’s really going on, he writes, is a company trying to pay down its debt so that it can start making bold moves again. The subtext of the piece, though, is worth taking in: the universal understanding that WBD and its leader are flailing.

Filming in Ghana: “There’s a stigma attached to creative industries as not being serious business,” Idris Elba told my colleague Alexis Akwagyiram. Elba, who is building a film studio in Ghana, is hoping to prove that wrong.

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